[This article originally appeared on rhizome.org ]
[Michael Daines is a 17 year old artist living in Calgary, Canada. But his precocious mastery of code and underhanded satire has earned him respect in his own right. His most popular work, “The Body of Michael Daines,” was one of the first auctions on Ebay that crossed the line into conceptual art. Not often does a kid from Canada get a chance to have his work in Artforum, no matter how talented he might be. But this is the utopian vision of the web at its best, the classic story that always seems theoretically possible but doesn’t seem to happen often enough. If you have the talent, you don’t have to do the networking, the paperwork, and the hob knobbing that have plagued the “real world” art scenes for years. Do something right, and it catches on – no one has time to check your resume. This is his first in depth interview.]
ES: So, for starters, how did you get into Internet art? What appeals to you about the media?
MD: The best answer is that I just found myself to be “in” Internet art at some point. It wasn’t a well-defined decision that I made, or anything like that. I think to do that, I would have had to have considered myself somehow “artistic” beforehand, and I certainly didn’t. I’m still very uncomfortable with the notion of being called an “artist”. I’m also glad there is no overwhelming proliferation of “net.art” programs for teens. Had I participated in something like that, I don’t know what would have become of me.
ES: Why not call yourself an artist?
MD: I think it has to do with a certain teenage politics, actually. Because there is this demographic in high school that thinks of itself as “artistic”, the kind of people who take art classes and do things like psychological self-portraits, that sort of thing. The kind of “art” that I really wouldn’t consider art, because it says nothing to me, is all clichés, is unoriginal, that sort of thing. These are all generalizations. But because what I’ve done isn’t associated or directly the result of any institution, I feel that it might be seen as less legitimate, certainly there is no paint on the canvas in the loose form of one of my friends for “The Body of Michael Daines.”
ES: We’re both part of a generation that saw net.art early enough for it to be the only media we work with. Whereas other people came from photography or the visual arts and applied that aesthetic to the web, a lot of your work deals in a very fresh way with some of the classical net.art techniques. Do you think that being a part of the “Internet generation” has affected how you approach your work?
MD: I have grown up with computers, I have literally grown up programming them. When I was fairly young we had this Atari and this manual for BASIC that was geared towards kids. My father had some idea that it would help me be able to think well later on, that it would be good for my intellectual development. I think it affected my artistic mind set or values or whatever a lot. I sometimes like to mention that I used Lynx on a UNIX account over a 2400 baud modem at one point, I feel it separates me from my peers.
ES: What do you consider to be the disadvantages?
MD: There is one major disadvantage I can think of: the possibility of the apparent ease of creation somehow undermining the value of the artwork. I feel like I have accomplished something quite monumental if I create something I am proud of in the “real world”. The ease of net.art is something I have toyed with, though: “The Body of Michael Daines” was created in less than half an hour, and it got me a mention in the magazine “Artforum”. I felt guilty and smug paging through my copy, looking at all of the advertisements for exhibits of sculpture and oil paintings and Andy Warhol prints. But what of the following-up of the auction, what of the creation of the concept?
ES: Isn’t that true for any media though? I mean, look at Jackson Pollock.
MD: But isn’t Jackson Pollock’s work very complex and doesn’t it not, as the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon goes, just involve pouring chicken gizzards onto canvas?
ES: I’m not too sure. But either way, you get people saying “I could do that.”
MD: I think I tend to believe in the conception that it is too easy, though I don’t know where I would have possibly got this from. Probably some net.artist somewhere. I feel that what I am doing is less, shall we say, “heroic” than something equivalent might be in another medium, but does that make it too easy? It depends on what you value in art- the execution, the pure beauty of form, or in the extended meaning, the subtext, the concepts. I think my work focuses mainly on the latter, though it is certainly possible within the medium to do the opposite.
ES: Have you had any formal training in art?
MD: As so-called “artistic” education goes, I have never taken a high school art class. I have tended, on the whole, towards organization rather than visualization. I have far more talent in design as opposed to drawing. The images that appear in my work are almost never drawn or created directly from some pen, they are taken from pre-existing images (usually found on the Internet, and stolen, I admit) and modified, or they are created with standardized and random processes developed by experimentation. I see myself as part of the sampling generation. It’s a kind of quoting that you can do covertly.
ES: The tendency toward organization is probably what makes your work look so classic “net.art” for me. Really concerned with presentation and organization of data, as opposed to the “web art” style which focused pretty much on formalism and aesthetics. Organization is really the “net” part of “net.art,” which is missing from the newer schools, I think.
MD: And the lack of organization. Because net.art happens on websites and networks, and networks are organized or disorganized or in a state in between the two.
ES: How have people reacted to your age? When I saw “The Body Of Michael Daines” and a lot of your other work- particularly from the mastery of code- I assumed you’d be much older. I actually imagined you to be an alter ego of Mark Napier.
MD: That’s flattering, though I’ve only read briefly about “Shred the Web”. I have been referred to as a “17-year-old” and a “high school student” when being talked of, and I’d like to think that my age isn’t actually why I get the attention I have. I used the Internet when a lot of people hadn’t heard of it, and therefore I think I have a slightly more refined view on it, one that is uncommon for someone who is just turning 18. I guess that, in some small way, I would like to be recognized as “precocious” because it’s nice to be described as that, but I wonder how important that really is to the artwork.
ES: Any comments on the idea of a net.art “brat pack?”
MD: I think that’s an amazing idea, especially if it involves me obtaining a new, snappy suit, lecturing, and drinking martinis.
ES: There’s also a definite literary undercurrent to a lot of your work.
MD: My work is literary by nature because I think literature and romanticism are important to me, and define my basic idea of “art”. I was exposed to Internet art works involving narrative and text early on. There were a few hypertext works, there was entropy8zuper, and so on. I’ve come to think that straight forward short stories aren’t quite enough my strength to support an entire site. I think text is very important to the Internet. It’s absolutely everywhere on the Internet, and it literally wouldn’t exist as it does today without it. While I don’t create “texts” like NN does, writing is very important to me. “Cloudless Nights” includes no text whatsoever, and I think that if it did, it would be ruined. Sometimes we must say nothing at all.
ES: NN is the net.art brat pack’s Molly Ringwald.
MD: Who is Molly Ringwald?
ES: She was a part of the Hollywood brat pack back in the 1980’s.
MD: I’m really only familiar with that in its most basic concept….
ES: No worries. Part of the appeal of your work is its romanticism, but at the same time there’s an element of satire. The use of technology in exaggerated or redundant ways. In “An Excerpt From Hamlet” you use CSS to carry a conversation on between actors- somewhat brilliantly I might add, but in a pretty redundant fashion. Then there’s “It Is Now Safe to Turn Off Your Computer”, which exaggerates the standard windows closing screen to make it into a kind of plugged in nightmare. What are you trying to say about technology?
MD: I suppose that, in some way, these and other works represent a fear of the elimination of all but “technology” in the world, the perfectly clean future or the dark and dirty future. “It Is Now Safe To Turn Off Your Computer” would have you never leave your computer, except for something like two specific hours of the day, and sometimes I find that this exaggeration is not as wild as I would prefer it was. On the other hand, I have very often tried to create beauty in these spaces, here I must be optimistic in hoping we will all be in control of our beautiful chaos.